Back to the past

From the Bomb to the Beatles is designed to invoke nostalgia. A multimedia experience drawing on TV, the gramophone and the jukebox, this exhibition uses light and sound to create an atmosphere which draws the spectator in. It would be possible to navigate through the exhibition blindfolded by following the progression of music from the war-time lyrics of Vera Lynn to the rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley.

Designed by CD Partnership and curated by the Imperial War Museum, the exhibition provides a lesson in history as well as a retrospective in design and popular culture. CD Partnership director James Soane is pleased because the design “has managed to make sense of thousands of objects while providing some form of emotional experience”.

Voyeurism is a consistent theme. At the entrance you can peer through a window into a late-Forties living room. The attention to detail – bread toasting on the fire, open comics lying on the carpet, a ration book on the table – recreates the era.

The simplistic layout is designed to make the exhibition easy to follow chronologically, while, at the same time, tracing the story of social and material change in Britain from 1945 to 1965. It is divided into four main sections – austerity, affluence, the bomb and youth.

Austerity is portrayed as a product of the war and is reflected in the fashion, food and art. A “must see” is the collection of photographs from the 1951 Festival of Britain. Aerial pictures of the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery at London’s South Bank show clear similarities to the Millennium Dome.

The dimly lit corridor displaying austerity opens into a light and spacious room which is at the centre of the exhibition. Here you are hit by the dramatic effects of affluence, which are visible in nearly all aspects of design. The lifting of restrictions at the end of the war produced a flourish of creativity in furniture, ceramics, lighting and textiles characterised by experimentation with colours and patterns. Decadence is displayed in a green reclining Terence Conran chair, precursor to later Habitat designs, and in a Fifties fridge packed with milk, cream, fish, bacon, eggs and cheese.

The bomb is represented by a realistic recreation of National Service barracks, which serves as a constant reminder of the threat of the nuclear bomb.

Then, as the “new creativity” is incorporated into lifestyle, the early-Sixties sees the establishment of a new youth culture. Mary Quant is the designer, pinstripe dresses and hipster trousers are the fashion and the Union Jack is the motif. On display are a collection of Private Eye magazines, David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups and a 1959 Mini Minor – the first off the production line.

The Burlington Magazine said in 1951: “It is doubtful whether any country in the world, in such a grim epoch, could have let itself go so gloriously as the British.” I’m not sure whether this is true but 1945 to 1965 is certainly an era of change which cannot be ignored by anyone interested in design.

From the Bomb to the Beatles is at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1, until 29 May 2000

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